31 May 2008

In defense of GTA, part 3: Criticisms, justified or not

In part 1, I talked about the history of video games. In part 2, I talked about how GTA 3 differed from earlier games. Now I’ve finally reached the payoff: discussion of criticisms of GTA.

Getting off on a technicality

Let me first return to the media controversy of GTA, and start off by talking about prostitutes and murder. You’ve probably heard the horror soundbite: GTA encourages players to have sex with prostitutes and then kill them.

As mentioned earlier, I’ve played all the storyline missions of all the 3D GTA games. Going by my experience, I will say that technically, I know of no point in any of the games where you are encouraged to kill a prostitute.

I say “technically”, because in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, there’s a mission where a pimp hires you to protect his girls. You’re told that two of them have been murdered, and you end up racing to rescue a third who is being attacked by two men. You then take the woman to a nearby hotel. Unfortunately, the woman later decides to leave the business, having met up with some charismatic Christian preachers. The pimp demands that you kill the ex-prostitute and her new friends. (Later you might end up killing the pimp too.)

This is an example of the kind of moral ambiguity that occurs in the GTA universe. One moment you can be saving lives, the next you can be killing people. The game presents you with many options, and leaves you to make the decisions. As I pointed out in part 2, you could also decide to protect prostitutes from the men who attack them. There are several story missions in the various games that involve that kind of scenario.

So other than a single mission in one of the games, I don’t believe that GTA games encourage or require that the player kill any current or former sex worker. The story rose to notoriety because some GTA 3 players worked out that you could avail yourself of a prostitute’s services–thereby boosting your character’s energy/health level–and then kill the woman afterwards to get the cash back.

I have no proof, but I suspect that the rules of the game were not chosen specifically to encourage prostitute-slaying; the fact that dead prostitutes drop cash is simply a matter of realism. When you kill any person in the game, you can grab whatever cash or weapons they were carrying. The rules of the universe were set, the gamers made the moral choice.

The questionable part, frankly, is the idea that seeing prostitutes would have a positive effect on your health; perhaps Rockstar should simply have made it one of the many things you can choose to do within the game that have no real benefit, like knocking down lamp posts or shouting insults at passers by in GTA: San Andreas. Perhaps in a future game we’ll see the protagonist come down with a bad STD and limp around in pain until he goes to the clinic.

A mug of hot coffee

Now the second controversial thing everyone’s heard about: the so-called “Hot Coffee” modification to GTA: San Andreas. The modification restores a scene which had been cut from the game before being completed, in which the protagonist has consensual sex with his girlfriend.

Let me emphasize that: Consensual sex. There is no moment in any of the GTA games where the protagonist gets to rape anyone. There is no sexualized violence.

The hot coffee scene occurs after CJ, the protagonist, has taken his girlfriend on a number of romantic dates to restaurants or bars, and has presented her with flowers or some other token of affection. She invites him in for coffee, and there’s some clothed and badly-animated grinding. In the game as released, you just hear some muffled moaning.

So in short: A series of games were sold in which you get to kill as many people you want, and can do so in dozens of creative ways. The authorities had no problem with that. But as soon as it was discovered that one of the games could be altered so that it depicted romantic sexual activity without nudity, there was a government investigation. That’s the USA for you.

But this episode brings me to another fact about the GTA games: They do not portray women only as prostitutes and strippers, a claim I have seen repeated many times. Nor are women always victims or sex objects.

In GTA3, the protagonist is at one point ordered around by Asuka Kasen, a woman who is a member of the Yakuza crime syndicate. In GTA: Vice City, there is a series of missions you can perform for an old Haitian matriarch called Auntie Poulet. In GTA: San Andreas, you can lead a double life and commit crimes for a vengeful criminal woman named Catalina, while dating a female police officer from a nearby town.

Kill all reporters!

As well as the fuss over “Hot Coffee”, there was some controversy in the media over allegations that the GTA games were racist. Specifically, one of the missions in GTA: Vice City included an instruction to “Kill all the Haitians”. The mission is one in which the protagonist has been hired by a gang of Cubans, who are racist towards Haitians.

Now, as I’ve already mentioned, you have the opportunity to work for the Haitians later on, and kill Cubans. However, as a result of the criticism, the game was modified to alter or remove references to both Cubans and Haitians.

The thing is, gang warfare can be racist. The GTA games depict it, without necessarily condoning it. The same can be said of many books and movies.

Do I think GTA is racist? Well, two of the games have a black protagonist, and the new GTA IV features a protagonist from Serbia. Both GTA: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto Vice City Stories feature interracial dating, which is treated in a completely matter-of-fact way. There are heroes–and villains–of all races. So I think it’s a stretch to claim that the games are racist; rather, they at times depict racism.

Are you high or something?

I haven’t played GTA IV yet, but there’s one more recent controversy I feel the need to mention briefly: Mothers Against Drunk Driving complained that the game allows the player to get the protagonist drunk and then have him attempt to drive home.

There are several ignored facts that make this a poor criticism of the game. The mission in which drunk-driving is set up is specifically intended to introduce the player to taxis, and how to use them. The game specifically tells you that you’re drunk and ought to take a taxi home. If you fail to do so, you are likely to hit stuff, kill people, and end up arrested. It seems to me that if anything, the game attempts to educate the player not to drunk-drive.

Informed criticism, rather than the usual kind

Having dealt with a few of the common misconceptions surrounding the GTA games and talked about a few uninformed criticisms, I’d like to move on to consider some of the ways in which the games do, in fact, fall short.

One criticism that can justly be leveled at GTA is that all the protagonists are men. Of course, GTA games are hardly alone in this; the number of video games with strong female leads is pretty small. (For my money, one of the best is Beyond Good And Evil , which is good in so many ways I could write a separate essay about it. The Metroid Prime series is excellent too.)

I gather that in GTA IV, you can play as a woman in the online multiplayer. Obviously it would be good if the main game allowed you to play through the story as a woman, but let’s stop and consider what would be required for that to happen.

Video games these days are big business. Tens of millions of dollars are spent developing them. The GTA games have hours of motion-captured 3D cut scenes in them, and voice acting from famous names as diverse as Samuel L. Jackson and Phil Collins. It’s reported that GTA IV has over 60,000 lines of dialog for 660 speaking parts–just for the pedestrians who populate the city! And because the games are set in a world somewhat like ours, you can’t just swap a male and female character and expect all the dialog and plot to still make sense and sound right. Hence, there would need to be parallel cut scenes and dialog tracks for the male and female variations of the game. I’d love to see it, but I don’t think it’s realistic, any more than it’s realistic to demand a version of Tomb Raider where Lara Croft is replaced by a guy with asthma who programs computers for a living. Maybe that would help me identify with the character more, but I don’t need protagonists to be just like me; as mentioned earlier, I’ve had great times playing games in which the protagonist is a woman.

Another justifiable criticism of GTA is that it’s a totally heterosexual world. Here, I suspect that the reason is the genre. The games are set in the world of violent crime. While there may be gay gangsters–and several of the games hint at same-sex attraction on the part of some of the thugs in the GTA world–it would be a stretch to make the protagonist overtly gay.

Does that mean the protagonist is always the aggressor in relationships, then? As a matter of fact, no. GTA: Vice City Stories features a transsexual German movie director who is constantly trying to get in the lead character’s pants. There’s also a mission which ends up in a gay bar; the first time I played that one I got my ass handed to me, so to speak.

Meanwhile, one of Rockstar’s other games, Bully, allows same-sex kissing. Like the GTA series, Bully is a “sandbox” game, this time set in a boarding school; so perhaps we’ll see same-sex romance in a future GTA as well, when it makes sense for the scenario.

A third criticism of GTA is that for all the openness of the world, your interaction with it is still pretty limited. You can eat food, exercise, shoot stuff, drive vehicles, and that’s about it. Again, it comes down to limiting the complexity explosion, but still, I’d love to see an adventure game that had a world as open as GTA’s.

Conclusions

The GTA series of games isn’t perfect. However, it isn’t the misogynistic interactive ultraviolence that people often claim. While some may play the games for the violence, a lot of us play them because they are a massive sandbox city that you can explore and mess with as you please.

As a reviewer at WIRED comments, the games are ultimately deft satires of the American city. They are so carefully observed and detailed that if you visit the real city after the GTA version, you’ll recognize familiar elements everywhere. As such, it’s almost as much fun to explore a GTA city as it is to explore a real city, and a lot less tiring and expensive, not to mention safer.

Further reading

The GTA games, reviewed by someone who had never played any of them before.

MSNBC on why GTA is fun to play.

bOING bOING on how GTA IV is perhaps the best way to understand the real New York.

A Flickr set of images comparing Liberty City with the real NYC.

The Onion has a surprisingly insightful article that pokes fun at the lack of realism in GTA.

© mathew 2017